For the past year, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) has been quietly visiting some of the poorest communities in America, trying to find out what really works in the fight to achieve equal opportunity 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson famously declared war on poverty.
The former Republican vice presidential nominee’s visits have been conducted out of the glare of the media spotlight. But on Tuesday, Ryan gathered a small group of African-American journalists and columnists in a small conference room on Capitol Hill.
“We need to re-assess our approach to poverty,” Ryan said. “We can’t look at 50 years of effort and think we’ve done enough.”
Ryan understands all too well that Republicans are often accused of being heartless and insensitive to issues confronting urban Americans struggling to escape the crushing grip of poverty.
On Tuesday, he waded into the conversation with veteran civil rights leader Robert Woodson Sr. by his side and explained that he “wanted to get out of the ivory tower, out of committee hearing rooms, and go out around the country and learn. Not talk, not lecture, but to learn.” The goal was not to make him a better politician but a better policy-maker. He wants to attack the root causes of poverty rather than simply ameliorate root symptoms.
“We have been marginalizing the poor in our communities,” Ryan acknowledged. “We’re not integrating people in our communities. We have poor ZIP codes and areas…we have not been getting people into the pipeline of economic opportunity and growth with education.”
While so much energy in Washington’s conservative community is focused on what hasn’t worked, Ryan said he was surprised on his trips about how many good programs generated success that remain largely unknown and not celebrated. “There are a lot of things that are happening out in America that are really positive, that nobody knows about, that are very successful, that we should be able to learn from and amplify.”
I pressed him on this point. Ryan spoke about how many community-based programs had made a fundamental impact in people’s lives, to help them break free of the confines of poverty to lead a more productive life. “A lot of people are actually winning—people who are actually getting out of poverty and making a huge difference,” he said. “If you just sit here [in Washington, D.C.] and look at statistics…you want to slit your wrist, but when you get out there, fantastic things are happening in communities that are worthy of celebration.”
Ryan explained how violence-free zones in Milwaukee had turned many children away from a life of crime and violence to one of productive responsibility. These individuals, mainly young people in their 20s who had once been members of gangs, serve as mentors to children in at-risk schools. Not Ph.D.s or master’s degree candidates, Ryan noted, but people with credibility who know how to speak to young people to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes. Gangs in these violence-free zones had largely disappeared, Ryan learned, with students graduating from college and being productive members of their society.
Ryan’s listening tour took him to such venues as Pastor Shirley Holloway’s House of Help in the District of Columbia, Pastor Darryl Webster’s Boot Camp in Indianapolis, and Bob Cote’s Step 13 program in Denver. Overall, Ryan made one visit a month over the past year and revisited a handful to continue the dialogue. He was particularly animated while discussing the work of Pastor Jubal Garcia’s “Outcry in the Barrio” in San Antonio, Texas. “This is all about second chances,” Ryan said. “It’s all about getting drug addicts cleaned up, on their feet‚ back in society, and getting them with employers who will take that risk on them.”
But beyond the advocacy of Ryan’s former mentor, Jack Kemp, the conservative movement has been reluctant to confront issues of poverty because the details are often at odds with its ideology.
And so I asked the representative from Janesville, Wisconsin, if he could reflect on a previously held ideological view that had changed over the course of his learning tour.
Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines. “I think our sentencing guidelines need to be revisited with an eye towards what actually works to make sure a person can hit their upward potential,” Ryan said. “Is it better to send someone to a successfully proven drug rehab program so they can knock the habit and get back on their feet again, or is it [better to] put them away for 16 years?”
Reflecting on past congressional efforts to limit discretion on the part of federal judges in imposing strict sentences—a reflection that will be sure to raise eyebrows in the House Republican Cloakroom—Ryan said: “I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there’s an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage—that that approach is missing in many ways…I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.”
Specifically, Ryan hailed the bipartisan work of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to dramatically overhaul the federal sentencing guideline structure now in place. Dubbed the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” the legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for certain drug offenses. It also would reduce crack cocaine penalties retroactive to 2010 and expand the discretion of federal judges to sentence defendants in certain cases to less time in jail than mandatory minimum guidelines permit.
While Ryan’s goal was clearly to impress upon his small gathering the lessons he had learned through his past travels, he notably declined to close the door on a future run for president. “I’m keeping my options open,” Ryan said. “It’s not a no or a yes. I’m going to think that through in ’15.”
Right now, he explained, he was going to focus on applying the lessons of his listening tour, proposing proactive conservative ways to combat poverty and create an opportunity society. And he seems more than willing to reach across the aisle to achieve results.
“We need to make redemption work again in America,” Ryan said. “We all make mistakes, and we have to help society understand that redemption occurs, that people need a second chance. Second-chance stories are the best there are.”